Trinidad’s sexy accent

CNN Travel has been running a facebook poll (because why bother actually reporting) on which accents people find the sexiest. The results were used to create this article of litte worth published over a month ago, since in the meantime the facebook poll has seen contributors decidedly change their minds, overwhelmingly voting the Trinidadian accent (and NOT the Italian one) as sexiest with 4,740 votes. French comes in second.

This first led me to think: what on earth is a Trinidadian accent and why do so many Americans find it so appealing? In my mind the only thing I could come up with was Jamaican, and I figured that meant I was probably being racist in some way, so I decided to face my prejudices and bravely search YouTube for answers. Luckily, there’s a tutorial on there for how to speak like a Trinidadian (of course there is). Here are some basic points (still sounds vaguely Jamaican to me…):
– pronounce ‘d’ in place of ‘t’ or ‘th’
– instead of ‘your’ or ‘you’, say ‘yuh’
– lose the ‘g’ in ‘ing’ endings
– Trinidadians speak quickly, so just try to take out as many sounds as possible (middle of words, end of words, wherever really) without affecting the meaning of what you’re trying to say. In fact, feel free to drop any small, useless words like ‘to’ or ‘am’ altogether.
– I suspect there are a few more phonetic differences not brought up here, but it’s a start…

From what I can gather, the most famous Trinidadian is Nicki Minaj, and I strongly suspect her fan base of hijacking that CNN Travel poll. Besides, there is a myriad of sexy accent polls out there, and everyone knows that the only right answer is Scottish (or Irish, at a push, I’ll also accept). This only goes to prove one thing: CNN’s information, as unreliable as always…

Languages of the world

I came across the Endonym Map project this week which is a basically a world map with the names of countries shown in their national language. One of the difficulties here, and something which the creators address, is precisely how to define the national language of a given country. When there are multiple official languages, then you have to rely on sometime-fuzzy statistics about the numbers of speakers of each language. In places like Africa this can be particularly confusing, and if you’re interested in the ins and outs of it GeoCurrent published an article on African endonyms in response to the project.

african endonyms

A big part of the map is shown in alphabets I can’t understant (perhaps a phonetic or direct translation of the country name would have been more useful?), so what really cought my attention was the accompanying table where you can clearly see how much European languages (mainly English, French and Spanish) dominate. It’s striking to see the residual effects of colonialism present to such an extent around the world. As the authors point out: “The most common official or national language in the world is English, with 86 countries or territories. These jurisdictions represent roughly one-third the number of total countries and approximately 30% of the planet’s land area.”

Add Spanish, French and Arabic to the mix and you cover 2/3 of the world’s national languages. This, remember, in a world where, by latest accounts, there are a total of 7,106 languages spoken. Of these, only around 300 are Indo-European (the branch that French, Spanish and English fall into). As for how we identify what a language is, and where we get this final (contested) count from, the Linguistic Society of America has a nice little introduction to the topic if you’re interested.

Another map I found this week seemed more encouraging vis-a-vis linguistic diversity. It was published by a site called movehub.com and aimed to show the second most spoken native language in every country (rather than 2nd language learned). There are some noteworthy, migration-driven examples like Polish in the UK or Mandarin in Australia, but the non-European languages also get their chance to stand out in Africa – at least the sub-Saharan part:

???

If maps and statistics are your thing, then you should go and feast your eyes on ethnologue.com which tracks the world’s living languages with charts and fun sections like their Language of the Day. Today, sticking with the African theme, it’s Ikwere from Nigeria.

(Re)bracketing

I was recently trying to explain to the ever-present Frenchman in my life why writing “a whole nother story” was not a mistake on my part. No, I had not made a typing error, and no, ‘nother’ should not be written with an apostrophe before it as the ‘a’ had not disappeared, it had merely reappeared in front of the ‘whole’, and no, “another whole story” just wouldn’t mean the same thing.

I couldn’t think of the linguistic term for this phenomenon (‘an other’ >> ‘another’ >> ‘a nother’) so I searched around and disocvered the wonders of ‘rebracketing’ (or metanalysis or misdivision). Essentially rebracketing appears when pronunciation leads people to misunderstand where the parting between words occurs, and so the orange fruit which came from the Arab ‘narandj’ (still ‘naranja’ in Spanish) became ‘an orange’ when it firmly settle into the English language in the 14th century after transforming from ‘une norenge’ to ‘une orenge’ across the channel.

Other such examples are the transformations of Medieval words like ‘a napperon’, ‘a nuncle’, and ‘a nadder’, but rebracketing can go the other way too, with the best known examples being ‘a nickname’, ‘a notch’ and ‘a newt’, which were originally ‘an eke-name’, ‘an otch’ and ‘an ewt’. This, of course, can all happen far more frequently when a good part of the population is illiterate and the writing system is barely codified. Although that’s not to say that someday ‘nother’ might not enter the dictionary as an entirely seperate term.

Rebracketing can also happen in more complex cases, like when you misunderstand a whole phrase and interpret it differently as often happens when listening to songs. In ‘The Power of Babel’, John McWorther recalls how his mother always misheard a Church hymn as a girl, singing “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear”, all the while imagining a visually impaired children’s book character. And I’m sure we can all sympathise having at some point mis-sung our favourite band’s lyrics at the top of our lungs, blind to the nonsensical nature of what we were saying.

There are multiple other examples: Stark-raving > Star-craving, Let alone > Little lone, Prima donna > Pre-madonna. And if you tell someone to “Polish it behind the door”, be careful that they don’t think you’re saying that Polly….

The Great Language Game

There are perhaps six or seven thousand languages in the world. Even so-called hyperpolyglots, people who learn to speak six or more fluently, barely scratch the surface. So you may never be able to speak them all, but maybe you can get better at identifying your Polish from your Malaysian or your Punjab from your Maori.

Happily, someone somewhere took the time to help you do that and came up with an online tool called ‘The Great Language Game’ which challenges you to distinguish the world’s languages based on their sound alone. Since there’s nothing as motivating as a bit of competition, you can compare your results to the overall global achievements or just with your equally nerdy friends. And check out the cool rotating globe which shows you, in 3D, where in the world the game is being played. Mainly in San Francisco apparently.

So off you go, there are 78 language samples waiting for you, and if your own tongue isn’t in there you can politely suggest they add it. Someone out there bothered to make this thing, so the least you can do is play.

greatlanguagegame.com

Class and terminology

I was always pretty confused growing up in Scotland as to what exactly people meant by ‘tea’ or ‘supper’, whether there was any difference when it came to ‘dinner’ and at what time exactly you were supposed to have ‘lunch’. I had put all this bemusement behind me until I stumbled upon a class-based explanation in Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English’.

It turns out, you see, that I must have had friends and acquaintances from quite a variety of social backgrounds to have come across all of these linguistic variations. ‘Tea’, when it is the evening meal taken at around 6.30pm, is very much an affair of working class origin, especially when referred to as ‘my tea’ or ‘your tea’. To everyone else ‘tea’ is what you have around 4pm, and is it, well, typically tea, accompanied with some light snack – scones, biscuits, small sandwiches, that kind of thing. The working classes tend to refer to this particular snack-time as ‘afternoon tea’, distinguishing it from the evening ‘tea’.

Referring to your evening meal as ‘dinner’, and having it around 7pm designates you as lower-middle or middle-middle class. Apparently it was only in my house that this meal was often called ‘lunch’, a leftover appropriation of a term from a whole nother culture. For everybody else in the UK, ‘lunch’ is eaten at midday, only the working classes would call this meal ‘dinner’ and refer to the evening ‘dinner’ as ‘tea’.

Stil following me?

Then there’s the ‘dinner’ of the upper-middle and upper-classes, which is still an evening meal but a rather more formal affair typically taking place much later in the evening with guests and fancy silverware. The more informal, daily family meals would in this case be referred to as ‘supper’, and eaten a little later than the middle-class ‘dinner’, around 7.30pm.

But the tea/dinner/supper variation is of course not the only British class indicator. When it comes to speech, it could take a whole book to go into the details of pronunciation across class and region, but the thing I always find more interesting is vocabulary. Did you know for example (and I had no idea), that certain words are veritable taboos amongs the upper classes and immediately designate one as a pleb?

So for example, when you can’t quite hear what the other person said, if you retort with ‘pardon?’, this assuredly puts a lower-class stamp on your person, regardless of how you might be dressed or how well you may have perfected your posh accent. If you say ‘sorry?’, you are probably middle class, and ‘what?’ designated you as a member of the gentry. Then again, if you hear ‘wha’?’ with the swallowed ‘t’ you’re probably dealing with a less-than-polite member of the working class. All a bit complicated, isn’t it?

There’s also saying ‘toilet’ (lower class if you don’t pronounce the ‘t’, probably lower-middle if you do) instead of ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’, the more ‘proper’ form. The middle-middles will have a whole variety of other terms as well – ladies, powder room, facilities, privy etc. You will also be looked down upon if you say ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’, ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’ and ‘lounge’ istead of ‘sitting room’ or ‘drawing room’.

And I wasn’t even aware that I was navigating such a sea of class-based terminology. Of coures this all comes from ‘Watching the English’, and I’m sure the Scots have a whole set of regional additions to these rules for which I should probably keep an ear out next time I cross the border.

Schadenfreude and other untranslatable terms

What does it say of a nation when its language carries a term not found and not easily translatable in any other? Does it mean that the Germans particularly enjoy the suffering of others (hence the term ‘schadenfreude’ meaning pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others)? Would it suggest that the Spanish are especially known to chatter after eating? That Indonesians are a particularly unfunny bunch or that that speakers of Urdu are unparallelled story-tellers?

Probably not, but then again, I’ve never understood an Indonesian joke.

Here are 10 untranslatable terms borrowed from medium.com, prizes for anyone who can think (or make up) a single term to translate one of these into English:

German: Waldeinsamkeit

A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote a whole poem about it.

Italian: Culaccino

The mark left on a table by a cold glass. Who knew condensation could sound so poetic.

Inuit: Iktsuarpok

The feeling of anticipation that leads you to go outside and check if anyone is coming, and probably also indicates an element of impatience.

Japanese: Komorebi

This is the word the Japanese have for when sunlight filters through the trees — the interplay between the light and the leaves.

Russian: Pochemuchka

Someone who asks a lot of questions. In fact, probably too many questions. We all know a few of these.

Spanish: Sobremesa

The period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with.

Indonesian: Jayus

Their slang for someone who tells a joke so badly, that is so unfunny you cannot help but laugh out loud.

Hawaiian: Pana Poʻo

You know when you forget where you’ve put the keys, and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help you remember? This is the word for it.

Urdu: Goya

This particular Urdu word conveys a contemplative ‘as-if’ that nonetheless feels like reality, and describes the suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling.

Swedish: Mångata

The word for the glimmering, roadlike reflection that the moon creates on water.

How to surprise an unfazed Frenchman

To the native English speakers among you who have ever attempted to learn French, you will remember the difficulty in differentiating between all those nasal vowels which make all the difference between the words ‘on’, ‘en’ and ‘un’ for example. There is also the difference between the acute ‘u’ sound and the more rounded ‘ou’ – confuse those two and you may end up saying ‘my ass’ when you meant to say ‘my neck’. I once spent about an hour with a very determined American desperate to correctly pronounce ‘tu’ and ‘tous’ although he could barely hear the difference between the two.

To the native French among you, all this will seem silly and obvious of course, for how could one ever fail to distinguish the difference between ‘ass’ and ‘neck’ or ‘you’ and ‘all’. My husband, a Frenchman, was rather struck when I pointed out to our mutual American friend, the one struggling between ‘tu’ and ‘tous’, that the difference between the two words did not just present itself in the vowel sounds. The ‘t’s in the two words are rather different. If you’re saying them correctly, then the positioning of your tongue will be different in preparation for the ‘tu’ (flatter) than for the ‘tous’ (more rounded upwards).

The Frenchman quickly and soundlessly tried this maneuver out in his mouth before looking at me in utter surprise. Clearly never before had he contemplated the possibility that in his native tongue, the letter ‘t’ could be sounded in different ways. This is the mistake people make when learning other languages – assuming that the same letter will in general represent the same sound. The English ‘t’ is not exactly the same as the French or the Italian ‘t’. Often the sound is similar but the tongue is positioned in ever so slightly a different way, and if that positioning is not observed, then whatever you do, you will always end up sounding a little foreign.

The more blatant example of this is the rolled or trilled ‘r’ (like in Italian) vs. the guttural ‘r’ (like in French) vs. the softer way Americans say ‘r’. Your best bet to avoid all these pronunciation difficulties is to learn as many languages as possible before age 12. If you are reading this a little too late, then there are a variety of techniques you can find online to guide your mouth through a series of contortions in a very deliberate attempt to pronounce these foreign sounds. Some will outright incite you to turn towards hard liquor to ‘loosen up your tongue’.  Anything with a video guide and a diagram of your mouth to show tongue positioning is best otherwise the instructions can be confusing as hell and liquor may indeed be needed – good luck!

The Thoughts of Mark Twain

Following on from the last post, it seems that Mark Twain had his own bit to say about English orthography, and notably proposed a reformation plan:

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k”or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 orso modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the mainzov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

It wasn’t just English though that rubbed Twain up the wrong way. When in France he famously proclaimed: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” And upon finding a French translation of his own story which he deemed sub-standard, he proceeded to re-translate this French version of  “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” into English, maintaining the French sentence structure and turns of phrase as a less-than-subtle mockery of the language of the frogs.

Here’s what a section looks like:

“It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”

Finally, perhaps the language which got his goat the most was German. If ever in need of a pick-me-up, find a quiet spot and read Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, which is simply entitled ‘The Awful German Language‘.  In his witty, at times utterly hilarious style, Twain rants about the innumerable exceptions, the unmemorisable use of appropriate cases, the bizarre and illogical construction of the German sentence, the confusing adjectival declination, the never-ending word constructions and finally, the outright odd gender system whereby ‘turnip’ is feminine but ‘maiden’ is neuter.

To illustrate this latter point, Twain offers us a literal translation of the “Tale of the Fishwife and its sad fate” which starts like this (nouns are capitalised as in the German):

“It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward.”

I leave you to discover the Fishwife’s sad fate on your own as I continue to search out other such little treasures from Mark Twain’s cynical pen.

Judging language in court

In the news these past weeks, the trial following the tragic and race-motivated killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year. His friend Rachel Jeantel has been talking before the judge, talking in African American English that is, a fact which has won her much mockery and a rather rude questioning from the defence lawyer regarding her ability to understand English (even though she was born and raised in Miami), to which she replied: “I don’t understand you, I do understand English”. 

While some criticised her ‘poor grammar’ and others tried to justify her language by the influence of her mother’s native Haitian creole, Jeantel merely represents a huge section of the American population who grow up speaking a non-standard dialect of English in their homes and communities, only to be told when entering public institutions that the language they speak is somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘ungrammatical’. 

It is neither, it is simply not the same as Standard American. If she says to the defence lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you”, she is simply using the preterite “had” in a perfectly acceptable way which would be familiar to millions of other African-Americans across the country. They would also be able to tell you that “I don’t be listening that much” is the correct form, and that “I ain’t be listening that much” doesn’t work.

As I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, there are multitudes of linguistic variation across the USA, only this one holds particular stigma. Linguists like John McWorther who wrote on this subject for Time openly caution against this type of linguistic prescription – not only prescribing rules that govern language which do not reflect the way that people really use it, but by doing so reinforcing an elite class and stigmatising an entire population because of the way they speak.

The linguistic prescription which results in the categorical repudiation of African American English has social ramifications akin to  racial profiling. From school to the job interview to the witness box in a court-room, every institutional environment operates with an assumption about your intelligence and trustworthiness based on the way you speak English. The current situation in the USA is hardly the first or the last of such cases through history, but is perhaps all the more surprising for occurring in what is supposed to be a wealthy western democracy proud of its grounding in the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. As it turns out, the dialect you speak, perhaps as much as the colour of your skin, is a discriminating factor in social integration. If we hope to realise Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” then surely Rachel Jeantel’s testimony should be judged not by the form of her grammar but by the content of her words.

ArtSpeak

Spending a lot of time in galleries and exhibitions, one can be forgiven for having the feeling of slowly going insane when confronted with art-world jargon used in everything from press releases to artists’ statements. Here’s a brief example of what I’m talking about from an art sale a little while ago:

art description

Believe it or not, the accompanying art work looked something like a hand-written Excel sheet. Grandiose, obscure and opaque, the language of art has long gotten my goat. A bit like some academic writing, I have always felt it to be an unnecessary code used to make the writer seem more intelligent than he or she really is, and give the reader a sense either of belonging to an elite if he/she is capable of decoding it (if there is anything to decode), or more likely of imbibing him/her with a feeling of awe and inferiority.

So it was to my delight that I stumbled across this article on the art website Triple Canopy, which seeks to linguistically examine what the writers (an artist and a sociologist) term International Art English (IAE). By machine-analysing a 13-year corpus of art writing from renowned online art sources and press releases, they first identify the defining characteristics of IAE using a tool called ‘Sketch Engine’ which can compare things like the relative occurrence of certain words or phrase types in comparison to a corpus of British English. So what is ArtSpeak composed of? Here’s a few outlines:

Vocabulary: “IAE has a distinctive lexicon:  aporia,  radically,  space,  proposition,  biopolitical, tensiontransversal,autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns:   Visual becomes  visualityglobal becomes globalitypotential becomes potentialityexperience  becomes … experiencability.”

Syntax:  –  frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned
– double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert
pairing of like terms whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases
–  reliance on dependent clauses, embedding as many clauses as possible, and the action of the sentence, deep within the structure. (see what I did there?)
the use of more rather than fewer words –  the artists “reveals something else about the real, different information.”
– all sorts of redundancies, such as groupings of ostensibly unrelated items : “Like an insect, or the wounded, or even a fugitive, Yoon moves forward with her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.”
– a dependence on lists (oftentimes another redundancy)

But perhaps the more interesting question behind all of this is WHY? Or as the authors put it, “how did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?” (constantly employing suffixes like -ity, -ality, and -ization and overusing definite and indefinite articles – “the political,” “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”)

Well, part of their explanation is that IAE perhaps did in fact rise up from directly-translated writing on art by French and German theorists in the 1970s. They argue that IAE mimics the highbrow French used by post-structuralists, a language which they themselves at times parodied, but which was taken and continued to be used without irony. If you’ve ever read texts upheld as the great products of French 20th Century literature you’ll recognise the never-ending sentences that make ample use of adjectival verb forms and past and present participles. But the Germans may also be to blame. The article authors posit that their legacy can be located in the liberal use of terms like productionnegationtotality and dialectics.

Yet whereas the German authors aspired to a type of analytic precision regarding the meaning of the words they employed, in IAE this elite form of language has become an approximation of itself – “What ‘dialectic’ actually denotes is negligible. What matters is the authority it establishes.” There is a pure absurdity of the whole resulting situation, in which much of the IAE out there comes from artists whose strength lies in visual, not verbal communication, and from daunted young arrivals to the art world’s many stuck-up institutions. The article sums it up nicely: “The IAE of the French press release is almost too perfect: It is written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.”

So what are we to make of all of this? Should we accept that IAE, or ‘ArtSpeak’ as I like to call it, has transcended the realms of communication and become a type of poetic verse, transmitting abstract feeling rather than concrete meaning? Should we, like the entrepreneurial John Russel, actively seek to remedy the situation by sending back annotated and corrected press releases to galleries and museums? Should we weigh up the benefits, like the artist’s and curator’s ability to bypass censorship and ministerial control in many countries by clouding the real, political meaning of their work behind a haze of ArtSpeak?

If we expect so much writing to be produced in response to art (statements, grant applications, publications, press releases, critical articles, flyers and accompanying explanations in exhibition spaces), then should we demand clarity, insisting on descriptive rather than theoretical language, objectivity rather than subjective babble overflowing with adverbial nonsense? Or should we accept that the language of art necessarily reflects art itself, that it is a challenging and personal encounter, and seeks to pose more questions than give answers?

These questions are something every artist, curator and intern should be asking themselves before they sit down before a keyboard. If I were in charge of the art world, I would suggest to them that rather than reproduce obtuse and unfathomable ArtSpeak, they write something worth reading, or paint a picture instead.